Zhang Weili admits that the hostile Florida crowd did impact her performance in the UFC 261 co-main event.
When fans boo a fighter during a UFC event, it’s uncertain if the fans expect those boos to actually make a difference or if it’s merely an expression of disdain. After all, it’s not as if it’s an NBA event where an opposing player is at the free-throw line and the home crowd is trying to influence his shot. In MMA, fans could be booing a fighter for any number of reasons.
Unlike the home NBA crowd, one could argue that it would be naive for fans to think that their boos could greatly influence a fighter’s performance. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Because that is precisely what happened to Zhang Weili at UFC 261 according to the former strawweight champion, who was overwhelmed by the experience of getting booed by thousands of fans (transcription via Ryan Harkness of MMAMania.com).
“Last fight with Joanna, even though she trained in America, she isn’t American,” Zhang said in a livestream shared on YouTube. “So we were quite equal, and neither of us got any boos. But this time, because Rose is from America, and Florida is a bit like that.. So when I showed up in the event… wow the boos were really loud. It was my first time experiencing the situation. And I didn’t expect it to be so serious.
“Even if she had 70% of the audience on her side, and just a small amount on my side, it wouldn’t have been that loud. When my music started playing even before I showed up, it was already loud. And so I couldn’t even hear what the referee or coach said.”
Zhang seems to be taking the boos as a case of dealing with a pro-American crowd as opposed to an anti-Chinese one. It bears mentioning that foreigners compete against American fighters quite frequently, including in high-stakes title bouts and against big fan favorites, and one would be hard-pressed to find fans booing a foreigner in such a rabid fashion just for opposing an American fighter.
Given the current political climate of the country and some of Rose Namajunas’s remarks regarding communism that many fans got behind, it would seem possible that the boos were a cultural response from the Florida crowd as opposed to just a patriotic one.
Of course, when dealing with the abstract and thousands of different minds, there is no way to know for sure what prompted the boos. It’s not as if there were any slurs that were reportedly launched at Zhang. But regardless of what prompted the boos to fill the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena and rain down on Zhang, they worked.
“I think Weili performed quite well in the beginning,” Zhang’s coach Xuejun Cai chimed in. “There was a huge psychological disadvantage fighting amongst a hostile crowd, so Weili wanted to relax more and be less nervous. But when she tried, she didn’t relax. Instead, she lost focus. So at that moment, she was actually not fully there. So I would say Weili wasn’t focused enough. We wanted her to be in her vacuum of focus from the moment of her entrance. But we let the boos overwhelm us.”
It would be easy to interpret these remarks as excuses from the former champion for getting starched in the first round in such a disappointing outing, but she insists that they are not excuses, merely explanations by way of an open, honest dialogue.
“I want to emphasize that we are not making any excuses [regarding the loss],” Zhang said. “We accept the result. I am talking about the boos, the location, and the uncertainty of who I’ll face, not because I am making excuses for my loss. We are just discussing the problems encountered. So if people think I am making excuses, that’s not the case.”
What are your takeaways from these comments from former strawweight champion Zhang Weili?